Reflecting on COVID-19 Challenges through the poetry of Wilfred Owen

Life in Melbourne has taken a turn for the worst as we all need to lockdown again, due to the quick spread of COVID-19 cases – hardly surprising as I have been very unimpressed by people who are incapable of maintaining 1.5 metre distance from others when shopping and walking in the streets: I call them “covidiots” – thanks to them for the new lockdown!

Silent streets at the front of the National Gallery, Melbourne

Luckily, we are still allowed to do local walks for exercise. In addition to appreciating the beauty of a quiet city in winter, it’s also been interesting to read poetry from challenging times in history and reflect on how the words from a century ago can instantly connect with us today. Difficult times allow communications to cut across the decades. We live in a time where countless bodies are being buried in circumstances that were unfathomable only months ago. Despite having the ability to learn from past mistakes, people never learn simple lessons from the past when it comes to war, famine or disease.

Silent city: Yarra River, Melbourne

The hopeless brutality of the first world war was immortally captured by the British War poet Wilfred Owen – art, poetry and photography are useful tools in helping us get through difficult times that cut across centuries. Here are some of my new photos, mixed with war poetry from a century ago:

Exposure by Wilfred Owen

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us…
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent…
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient….
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous
But nothing happens.

Saturday afternoon at an empty Flinders Street Station during COVID lockdown

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among the brambles,
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

Carlton Gardens in an early morning winter fog.

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow…
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and cloud sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks of shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

Closed playgrounds during the COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne.

Sudden successive streaks of bullets streak the silence,
Less deathly that the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew;
We watch them wandering up and down the nonchalance,
But nothing happens.

Normally bustling, but now deserted, Melbourne laneway during lockdown.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling at our faces –
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling at our faces –
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?

Face mask on Matthew Flinders statue, Swanston Street Melbourne

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is thiers;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, –
We turn back to our dying.

Cosy walk through a silent Fitzroy Gardens during COVID lockdown.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever suns truly smile on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore we were born,
For love of God seems dying.

To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckered foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in the shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

Silent MCG – on a Saturday afternoon, this area would normally be packed with football fans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s